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Prospero’s America

John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606–1676

Walter W. Woodward

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3301-8 ($47.50)
Paper: 978-1-4696-0087-1 ($27.95)

Copyright 2010
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Homer D. Babbidge, Jr., Award, Association for the Study of Connecticut History (2011)
  • Choice Outstanding Academic Title (2010)

In Prospero's America, Walter W. Woodward examines the transfer of alchemical culture to America by John Winthrop, Jr., one of English colonization's early giants. Winthrop participated in a pan-European network of natural philosophers who believed alchemy could improve the human condition and hasten Christ's Second Coming. Woodward demonstrates the influence of Winthrop and his philosophy on New England's cultural formation: its settlement, economy, religious toleration, Indian relations, medical practice, witchcraft prosecution, and imperial diplomacy. Prospero's America reconceptualizes the significance of early modern science in shaping New England hand in hand with Puritanism and politics.

About the Author

Walter W. Woodward is Connecticut state historian and assistant professor of history at the University of Connecticut.


Walter Woodward has produced a splendidly original study of the world of John Winthrop, Jr. On almost every page one encounters provocative new insights. Woodward forces readers to rethink what they thought they knew about seventeenth-century science and medicine, witchcraft prosecutions, and political culture.

--T. H. Breen, Center for Historical Studies, Northwestern University

No one until now has made a sustained attempt to integrate John Winthrop the Younger’s pansophic, medical, and religious views into a coherent account where alchemy played a major role. . . . Woodward’s book should breathe a vigorous new life into the study of early New England’s complex religious, intellectual, and material culture.

--William R. Newman, Indiana University

Woodward restores New England to its Atlantic World context. . . . His reinterpretation of Winthrop through the eyes of New England’s Native peoples—as a potent leader from a sachem’s lineage—is brilliant. The familiar is cast anew, and the reader who burrows into Woodward’s fresh and original argument is rewarded again and again.

--Ann Marie Plane, University of California, Santa Barbara

Woodward's provocative and gracefully written monograph should be read widely by historians of early America and of early modern science….The pleasures of this book rest on the coherence of Woodward's use of alchemy, and Neoplatonism more broadly, to illuminate John Winthrop, Jr., and his world.

--Reviews in American History

Intriguing. . . . Thoroughly researched, highly readable, and insightful.

--Early American Literature

The story is good, revealing how the scientific method emerged from empirical alchemy and giving a brilliant new interpretation of Winthrop's supposed change in attitude toward colonial potentials in his later years.

--Early American Life

Fresh, inventive, and mostly persuasive. . . . A far more interesting and important Winthrop than prior accounts have constructed.

--Church History

In a strikingly alchemical mixture, this book combines politics, economics, science, industry, warfare, and religion, and manages to create that most treasured of prizes—a fascinating portrait of a man who, while not unknown, is not as well known as perhaps is appropriate. . . . Readers will find many of their assumptions about Puritan New England challenged and ultimately revised. . . . Highly recommended.


In his fine biography . . . Woodward's portrait of the younger Winthrop illuminates a particularly rich seventeenth-century life; one that clearly strides in the direction of the Enlightenment, if it does not have one foot there already.

--Times Literary Supplement

[A] competent and interesting study that places alchemy at the heart of John Winthrop, Jr.'s effort to shape colonial America.

--Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

Marks a great leap forward in the integration of science studies with the grand tradition of colonial New England historiography, as well as in the integration of New England into studies of the early modern Atlantic world. . . . [Woodward] displays a sure hand in providing the best available account of the predisciplinary career of New England's most multidimensional founder.

--American Historical Review

Prospero’s America masterfully places the life, thoughts, and actions of the Connecticut governor in elaborate cultural, political, and historical contexts. Its author leaves few stones unturned as he immerses his reader in Renaissance occultism, seventeenth-century medicine, early New England religious culture, and the politics of empire.


Woodward has written two books in one—a new biography of John Winthrop Jr. and a groundbreaking examination of the importance of alchemy in the first decades of New England's settlement. . . . An important contribution.

--New England Quarterly